Therapeutic Use of the Internet in Nursing Homes

A recent study by the Phoenix Center looked at adults 55 and over, but not employed or in nursing homes, and found that Internet use decreased their level of depression by 20%. I’m not at all surprised by this, and I believe a similar decrease in depression levels would be observed in nursing home residents as well.

While residents are living together rather than isolated in their own homes, and therefore have more opportunities for socialization, there are still many people who don’t partake of the recreational activities offered for their enjoyment. Some residents never leave their rooms due to physical or psychological barriers, and some don’t like crowds. Other residents feel uncomfortable socializing because of the physical changes of illness, wish to pursue activities other than those available in the nursing home, or miss connecting with those outside the home. The Internet offers the opportunity for nursing home residents to transcend their physical illnesses, leave the boundaries of the facility, and connect with the world.
In an earlier post, I shared ways in which I use the Internet for therapeutic purposes, and I believe they’re worth repeating here:

1. Psychoeducation Regarding Illness:
Often residents are given diagnoses, but little information about them, leaving them confused or upset, which can result in noncompliance with medication and care. I search for a resident’s illness with them on the computer, and discuss the symptoms and treatment, which enhances cooperation with medical staff. Some residents are more receptive to information coming from a “neutral” source than from their own caregivers, and most residents appreciate a print-out of information they can refer to over time. Posting a list of illnesses and the Web addresses of important sites near the computer would facilitate this process (eg; The American Diabetes Association, the Amputee Coalition of America, etc).

2. Support Regarding Illness:
Most of the residents deal with their illnesses in isolation, when there are many avenues of support available to them on the Internet. Having the opportunity to “discuss” their concerns anonymously with peers can often be more effective than trying to generate a conversation between two or more residents at the nursing home, due to discomfort at revealing personal information. At, for example, stroke survivors can “meet” other survivors on-line and get information and emotional support, as can their caregivers. To find the appropriate support groups, enter the name of a particular illness and “support” into the browser window and look around from there. Another option: Look for a Yahoo group about the illness and sign up the resident after establishing a free email account through resources such as Yahoo or Google.

3. Connection with Family and Friends:
Why should residents have to limit themselves to family visits or phone calls when most of the rest of the country is communicating via email, Twitter, or a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace? I’ve established email accounts for octogenarians to help them keep up with the grands, and a free Facebook page would accomplish the same thing with a bit more zing.

4. Reminiscence:
I once worked with a terminally ill 88-year old man who’d left Barbados in his thirties and had never realized his dream of seeing his country again. Imagine his expression as I entered “Barbados” into Google Images and up popped photos of the country he thought he’d never be able to see again. This intervention generated a flood of memories and a profound sense of relief and closure. Reminiscence could also be conducted in a group format, with connection to a large screen, so that residents should share with others information about their home countries or hometowns.

5. People Search:
One of my favorite things to do with residents on-line is to find their long-lost friends and relatives. For example, through the Internet white pages, I helped one extremely lonely and depressed resident find a friend with whom he lost touch sixty years ago. They are now enjoying an exchange of letters and photos, and my patient has something else upon which to focus besides his poor health and lack of visitors.

6. Fun & Miscellany:
Acting under the theory that doing something enjoyable will begin the upward spiral out of depression, I’ve occasionally brought a resident to the computer to listen to their kind of music (try, to check out the latest fashions, or to see photos of famous movie stars (Google Images). Once a 97-year old Panamanian resident told me she’d felt unattractive all her life because she thought her lips were too big. “Oh, no,” I told her, “your lips are considered beautiful and the height of fashion.” She believed me after I clicked on Google Image photos of Angelina Jolie.
Do you have more therapeutic uses of the Internet? Please add them to the Comments section.

11 thoughts on “Therapeutic Use of the Internet in Nursing Homes”

  1. An inspiring post.

    I'm in the tech sector and I'm very interested in a career change with a focus on the elderly. I've been planning on a masters in gerontology with a focus on care management but I think I need to come up with a better use of my skills.


  2. My father is receiving care at home. Even though he won't use the computer, he is willing to watch if I "drive". I've found that videos on Youtube of his boyhood baseball heroes pique his interest. Also, watching game highlights on is something he likes as well.

  3. Maike, I think we'll see more and more use of technology with the elderly, especially as the baby boomers age.

    Anonymous, that sounds like a great way to engage your father. I'm almost always the "driver" of the computer also. There are some companies that are marketing more user-friendly computer interfaces for seniors, and there is adaptive equipment available also. The biggest challenge is attitude, and, in the nursing home, access. Showing seniors why they might enjoy the computer, like you're doing, is a good step.

  4. Eleanor, you are my hero! Every time I come to your blog, I am inspired. You show us how using technology to fulfill a person's needs can also touch their hearts and lift their spirits.

  5. Dale Carter just forwarded this on to me. I commend your efforts to educate people on the value of internet/technology access for older adults. It is shameful that nursing homes and other residential facilities refuse to embrace this. A study as recent as last year showed that seniors who said that they felt lonely had a 50% greater chance of developing Alzheimer's disease than those who did not feel lonely. Plus all studies show that having internet access and feeling connected to family and friends can decrease loneliness and depression (thereby decreasing chances for Alzheimers). Dr. Gary Small recently published a study showing that surfing the web can help older adults avoid dementia.
    I am afraid the nursing homes and such feel that implementing change will cost them TIME and MONEY and it is not something they are willingto tackle at this stage. It is frustrating.
    As someone mentioned above, several companies are building products to help make technology more accessible for older adults. One of them is FamiliLink (… It is a website designed for older adults and makes connecting and engaging with your loved ones so much easier!
    Best, Inger

  6. Thanks, Dale, for your kind words. I also like to use my iphone in nursing homes that don't have computer access, but the small screen is limiting. YouTube comes across pretty well. For depressed residents who aren't responding well to other approaches, I'll sometimes look up their favorite song, artist, or movie and play them a clip. It completely transforms them.

    Inger, thanks for your comment. I understand your frustration, and I think this is an area where family members can and should make a difference in the nursing homes of their loved ones. Computer access doesn't cost that much, and if family members worked with the nursing home staff to organize a fundraising event such as a bake sale or raffle, it wouldn't take long to gather the funds for a computer. Perhaps then the facility would be more willing to provide the on-going tech support to keep the computer up and running.

  7. I first saw Sue's photoscope in the gift shop at the museum of the City of New York… loved the NYC one. I ended up having Sue make one of my vacation to Spain. Its great! usually I just throw vacation pictures in an album and rarely see them again. Now I see them everyday at my office…where I need the escape.

  8. As we get older we have a tendency to look to the past and remember the good old days. I feel the internet can make these the "Good Old Days. Age has no bearing on ideas, suggestions, beliefs, passions or faith on the Internet. Amazingly, we are all the same. People hopefully trying to help people.

    We need blogs written by the people who lived through recessions and depressions to show our young people how to make a casarole for $1.00? Our World War II demographic were the original "recyclers". What tricks and savings are we missing? What mistakes did we make and how would we do it different if we had it to do over again? What is really important in life?

    I say the Internet is a perfect marriage of the past and the future. It is a shame so few assisted living facilities embrace and share its power with it's residents.

  9. Paul, I like your idea of more blogs by older folks. It would be an interesting nursing home (or assisted living) project to have a group of residents working together on a group blog. It will happen some day.

    Your comment led me to google "old lady blog" and I discovered a really cool blog called Time Goes By, what it's really like to grow older. There's a "Complete Elderblog List" button on the home page, if you're interested.

  10. Are there any statistics out there that indicate the number of nursing homes and/or assisted living facilities that currently offer computer usage/computer instruction to their residents? Thanks

  11. Anonymous, earlier in the year I tried some informal research to gauge computer access in nursing homes, but couldn't get this information. If anyone knows this info, please comment here or send me an email via the "Contact Me" button in the top right of the blog. Thanks.


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